Guest Column

Area’s entrepreneurial bridge builders are thriving

May 11, 2018
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Recently, Start Garden announced the 100 ideas selected as part of its “100 Ideas/$100K initiative” — an intentional approach at diversifying the entrepreneurship scene in Grand Rapids (Start Garden's 100 Ideas invests $100,000 in these entrepreneurs). And I recently had the opportunity to attend West Michigan’s Best and the Brightest Companies to Work For awards.

As I took in the awards ceremony and the energy radiating in the venue, it dawned on me that we are in the bridge-building business in West Michigan — the entrepreneurial kind. In simple terms, when building a bridge, engineers always start with two pillars, or the “from and to” points.

Having a chance to experience these two award ceremonies within a week of each other really cemented in my mind the great things happening in West Michigan. (Throw in the Grand Angels spring dinner I attended during this same two-week period, and now you’ve got the trifecta of growth and “what’s next” for us in this vibrant community.)

One of my takeaways from the “Best and Brightest” event was a concept shared by panelist Ron Kitchens of Southwest Michigan First: The culture in a company is like a bucket of water with holes in it — you keep pouring water into it as your company grows, and the holes in it cause it to be constantly changing and evolving. Start Garden’s work in our community is reflective of this, most recently with its 100 Ideas project. And it is this work that allows for a diversity of local aspiring entrepreneurs to become the “from” pillars on the bridge to a successful business.

One such example of this is Soldadera Coffee, a cold-brew coffee startup focused on offering coffee spiced with unique herbs found in Mexico that also raises awareness of gender inequality in the community through the product’s branding. I had the honor of judging at Grand Valley State University when Soldadera first pitched this business idea and have seen the progress of this startup from the beginning. The brother-and-sister team of Mario and Gabriela Rodriguez went on to win two other business pitch events, including being one of the 100 ideas selected for phase two of the 100 Ideas. They have the opportunity to win $20,000 to launch their business.

The progression of their startup is the progression of the bridge — working toward the “to” pillar. But what does that “to” point look like for Soldadera Coffee? My guess would be full production, a thriving market and controlled, effective growth — what any startup and entrepreneur shoot for when they embark on their journey.

Speaking of journeys, my Vistage journey continues to amaze and drive me to what’s next, and I was elated — more like honored — at the prospect of having five of my Vistage members be among the “Best and Brightest” — Butterball Farms, Twisthink, SEI, Comfort Research and Worksighted. If you were to ask any one of them if they knew their “from” pillar would bring them here, most likely they would humbly answer in the negative. However, every single one of them remembers their “from” point, just like Mario and Gabby from Soldadera Coffee will. Mark Peters, owner of Butterball Farms, who keynoted the event, even discussed his own story of growth, ending with this amazing statement: “Strategy is what we do, culture is how we get there.” Beyond the five “Best and Brightest” award winners, my other 16 Vistage members represent this statement well. In my opinion, they all have culture as their mainstay and it is a key aspect of their growth.

So what does Start Garden, an incubator of startups and entrepreneurship, have to do with (or in common) with the “Best and the Brightest” awards? Everything.

Start Garden claimed that by launching its 100 ideas project it was opening the gates for every neighborhood and any individual to share their idea in hopes of turning it into a business. Opening these gates was a pathway to the “from” pillar of that business success bridge. Without organizations like Start Garden, aspiring and ambitious entrepreneurs like Soldadera Coffee (and the many others like them out there) may not have had the opportunity to even think about, let alone work toward, the “to” pillar of that bridge.

The “Best and Brightest” represents the success of the journey through the business bridge and, arguably, an aspired “to” pillar of that bridge. I am excited and humbled to be part of a community that, in my opinion, represents this kind of bridge construction. We don’t have to dig that deep to see how intentionally the starting “from” pillar is planned and cultivated, and how the “to” pillar is aspired, worked for and celebrated. One of the reasons I keep an office at Start Garden is that although I am only here a few hours a week, I get a chance to hear these West Michigan stories and blend them with the “Best and Brightest” experiences I have.

We’re in the bridge-building business. Take out your hard hats. Roll up your sleeves. Let’s continues building these bridges.

Steve Johandes is an adviser, advisory board member and chair for Vistage, an international peer-to-peer advocacy organization for CEOs, executives and business owners. He also is founder of an organization called 100X, which focuses on helping legacy-driven family offices and organizations be more intentional, visual and transformational.

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